Today many vice presidents and other senior executives in human resources (HR) have earned a seat at the executive table by showing their organization’s senior teams that HR operations contribute at least as much as Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, IT or any other department. The key to this is continuous learning. Jack Welch, former 20-year CEO of world class GE, now an itinerant management guru, is often quoted: “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Executives who aspire to lead organizations have to spearhead that learning first by learning steadily themselves and that is nowhere truer than for HR.
Welch also says point blank in his book Winning (Welch, 2005) and frequently on the speaker circuit, that HR is the second most important job (after CEO of course), and the only other role impacting every part of an organization. It combines the most complex set of tasks of any position. You need to know HR inside and out, but like a CEO, you also need to know a good deal about every other function.
Since it is impossible to know everything, the key becomes developing the ability to learn rapidly. The only way to learn this is by practicing for it constantly. In so doing, you accumulate a wide knowledge as well as a respect for the complexity of other positions, and an ability to talk to people in their language.
Each of us learns differently, but what distinguishes top colleagues at the senior HR level is they never stop searching for answers and asking questions. This isn’t something you tack on when you reach the next level, but a set of habits you need to practice throughout your career. It begins with powerful curiosity about how things work, not just in HR, but in all sorts of subjects, the wider the better.
Everyone asks if HR executives need prior experience to pave the path to the C-suite in HR. Clearly, not every successful HR executive has worked in other situations, but an ability to understand other roles, to put yourself in another person’s shoes and step into a discussion of their issues (without looking uninformed) is critical. Even a short direct exposure to business issues helps many managers recognize the value of understanding them, but it is possible to do this without direct experience if you pay attention and work at it.
My advice to ‘learn to learn’ isn’t just idle guidance for others, but something I lived (and still do). I was able to serve in senior HR roles over 23 years, 14 as the senior vice president of HR for one of the country’s largest companies. In those roles, I found that successful people do not take their knowledge for granted.
In my experience, there are four main ingredients to successful HR leadership that are interdependent. All involve continuously increasing knowledge of yourself and your surroundings.
Seamless HR Services
First you have to ensure HR delivers effective support services. This is a price-of-entry requirement. It means knowing what the best services look like and whether yours are performing at top levels. Today this may mean outsourcing some aspects to ensure up to the minute systems and procedures, but whether outsourced or not, you can’t lose touch with how these are managed. Information privacy and security, human rights, ethics, diversity and more have to be monitored and assured in addition to effectiveness of the actual service provided. Experts can help, but HR needs a continuing, updated grasp of requirements so nothing is overlooked. It’s a big, continual learning requirement.
A key goal today is developing a consistent employment brand around a core HR strategy, whether that is talent management, successor development or whatever. This requires looking at the culture from the employees’ view and assembling all the basic HR pieces so the whole is consistent and positive, and there are no glaring inconsistencies that make rules, pay, perks or promotions seem unfair or management seem blind to such key issues. Staff need to believe they will be supported with challenging tasks so they can grow. Inevitably one of your challenges is executives who think motivation means to pay more, offer more incentives, bigger titles or other perks; they don’t want to ‘waste time’ (or maybe they don’t know how to) coach and develop talent.
Some senior executives will never fully get it. They’re caught up in day-to-day hustle. As an HR professional, being able to explain and illustrate what works best and why is a key skill that requires you to present useful facts relevant to these other divisions in language they relate to. All that requires strategy, confidence, and understanding a good deal about other functions.
This brings us to the second interdependent requirement – strategy.
Understandable HR Strategy
Strategies are how you plan to get to the better future you set out in your larger vision. Larger has to mean larger than just HR or just profit-making. The overall organization needs a vision and these are often pretty anemic – increase sales or market share by 5%. There isn’t much there to appeal to the average employee or other stakeholder groups except perhaps shareholders, though today even they are learning it takes more than just sales or profits to support increasing value.
We all debate mission versus vision and the usefulness of big statements for either. The difference is simple: vision is where you’d like to end up, mission is what you plan on doing to get there. Google wants to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.’ (http://www.google.ca/about/company/) That’s a massive, positive mission for a vision of a goal that will never be fully realized. Visions are moving targets. And you need a vision/mission for your own life and work, and a plan to learn how to get there.
Google has been criticized for not expressing its mission in dollar terms – as in ‘earn billions for shareholders by making people pay for it.’ Somehow I doubt the dollar mission/vision would excite nearly as much effort or commitment from employees, the lifeblood of how you achieve results. Dollars flow in to organizations that have inspiring missions or visions that everyone wants to see succeed. They are more a by-product, a very important, necessary one for survival, but by-product nonetheless. The same is true of your own vision – getting a 10% raise is a by-product of some larger aim you pursue. What will that be? For me, business was a way to change the world. Trading partners are less likely to go to war, starve each other or worse. I might not have made huge progress, but I aimed for it.
Everyone says HR strategy should build around and align with the business strategy. That’s all well and good, but it has to go further than just supporting and being consistent with the need to make money. HR strategy helps lead and focus the business toward higher objectives than annual targets – the development and utilization of the full potential of every employee as well as a vision or mission they can be inspired about.
We want an engaged workforce because those will be our people who innovate. It’s their innovations that mean we can double, triple, quadruple the business, take it in new directions, into new products and services, new global markets, new alliances and joint ventures. As an HR professional, you learn to think ahead. Where’s your industry going? What’s becoming obsolete? This helps with workforce planning – what skills will the business need – but it also critically positions you as an HR business partner rather than simply a ‘support.’ You don’t take a year off to learn all this, you work at it diligently along with regular duties – learning a little at a time from every executive and expert you meet – if you pay attention.
Continuing Personal Growth
Others in the organization generally get very caught up in the financial by-product results, so HR has to know the language of dollars, capital investment, payback, ROI, ROIC and so forth and be able to show numerically some sort of connection with HR strategy.
Short courses and quick study materials are available for those who didn’t take business programs. You can’t talk with a CEO, CFO or an executive who aspires to these roles and has profit and loss targets to worry about if you don’t know what the words mean. Once you learn the language of business, then it’s straight forward to develop proof of how HR makes achieving them easier. You can’t find numbers in every case, but you can in enough areas to make very valid arguments. Today there’s mountains of research to present or adapt for such proofs.
Hesitancy in using numbers, doing statistics and calculating returns is widespread among HR executives with non-business backgrounds, but these can’t be excuses for not learning. Lots of people feared math in childhood, but adults have the ability to learn core skills when they need to, so old fears can, and should, be put aside. Strategy is fine, but without concrete, often numerical, evidence of progress, it won’t be effective.
In university, I took a couple of years of engineering, then finished with a degree in psychology and a Masters in counseling. When I decided to pursue HR, I knew I needed to know more, so I signed on for a night course in accounting and one in economics and I read a couple of books on both business and HR. I found that once you have the ground work you can look up the details. The math I needed was 99% arithmetic that all of us mastered in grade school. It’s rarely, as they say, rocket science. It’s knowing what to add, subtract, multiply or divide that is important.
If I have a regret about my years in the senior HR role, it would be that I spent most of it with a senior group that wasn’t really a team. Everyone operated fairly individually in silos despite weekly meetings. They knew what was going on, but didn’t coordinate in a true sense. The reason was the official leaders didn’t have the confidence to allow differing opinions to be worked through. Without that, true teamwork simply can’t be developed. Instead you have the boss’ opinion, modified in various individual ways to suit individual function strategies that don’t fully align.
Relying continually on pure command and control leadership – just giving orders – is a sign of insecurity and fear. It takes courage to run a collaborative operation. You can learn and become a model. If you can’t find an organization or develop a senior team to adopt this approach, the best advice is to seek the right ingredients elsewhere. I should have done this years before I finally moved on.
One of the greatest tests of anyone’s confidence is being able to hold back when your teams want to try things their way (since you may end up having to take the blame if they go wrong). You must ensure people can challenge your thinking as a leader in private or in meetings without fear of reprisals. Even if you react just with visible excess caution when suggestions are made, you won’t get feedback and ideas. Without input you are a lone soldier battling in the dark. No matter how good you are, you will never outdo competitors for promotions and you will lag in results behind those who utilize the full resources of everyone’s contributions.
It takes a lot of confidence to drive strategies for collaborative leadership and coaching-style development of successors throughout an organization against what is often steady, ingrained resistance. If you keep working at it, momentum can develop, making it increasingly easy as more and more executives understand the value.
I was lucky to have had some very intense leadership roles in jobs I volunteered for earlier in my career. I took those positions often without knowing I’d have to develop extra confidence to survive them. Volunteering for stretch roles that sound interesting is something I always recommend to anyone wanting to learn more and move ahead. As a super-shy child, adolescent, and young adult, I’d have been voted least likely to succeed in leadership. I ploddingly learned confidence in my skills one lesson at a time, as most leaders do, in the midst of struggling to make things work in tough jobs. Those who have read Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will know that learning takes years to accumulate expertise, but there’s no substitute. Once you have the ground work though, you can speed up the promotion ladder very quickly.
Practice, trial and error and tolerance for your own mistakes are critical to learning. I’m a great example that this can all be learned if you persist in wanting results and taking some risks to get them. It would be hard to start with less self-confidence than I had. It develops naturally as you press forward, IF you press forward. Having a strategy for yourself and your work is essential, for then you can commit to the strategy and keep trying until you learn what it takes.
Even when there’s no additional pay immediately, it’s worth it to learn from challenging add-on roles to build a base for bigger jobs and the biggest incomes. In 35 years, I only asked for a raise once – and at that, it was a given I’d get one – it was just a matter of how much. Every other significant increase, big or small, came with taking on more responsibility in one way or another, most often without being asked. In 12 years that multiplied my pay by more than ten times from where I started in business. Fortunately I built the confidence to believe I could transition to a very different, more remunerative industry. Working at building confidence by volunteering for more difficult roles certainly paid off for me personally, as well as the organizations I did the work for.
All my HR work and attempts at influencing over the years were certainly made easier because of steady accumulation of interesting new ideas at every opportunity. I’m indebted to many fine staff who coached me in areas I didn’t have expertise in, which were many. It helped that I was an eager student for them, willing to listen, learn, ask for advice and share decisions.
It is easier and more necessary than ever to develop a tiered learning strategy today using many resources. With mountains of free material on the internet, and more companies encouraging senior managers to coach, lots can be obtained quickly and easily at no cost, no matter what learning approaches you prefer. Learn all you can on your own and free up precious development dollars to put toward high quality programs and sessions aimed not so much at certificates that look good on a resume, but for actual content to apply directly to your work whenever possible.
Simply learning all the time without applying much of it is of little value. At the same time we should never rule out learning things that aren’t immediately applicable if we see something intriguing that seems to have future value.
The more we develop a real enjoyment of discovering and applying new information, the more we will be prepared to keep at it not just once or twice a year, but daily, weekly, and whenever opportunities to ask good questions or check out something novel appears. A steady trickle beats an occasional flood every time. Learn to provide effective services, to strategize in all areas (personal and work) and the confidence to lead by example and by coaching even your senior team toward team-based approaches.
Don’t wait for anyone to invite you to focus on these areas for learning or leading. It’s never too soon to start investigating, thinking seriously through what you would or should do in the next role up... or two. That’s the route many of today’s top executives used to get ready for opportunities that hadn’t yet appeared.
Some years ago I attended a program where we were each encouraged to come up with a slogan to live by. After some pondering, the obvious line for me came to mind: Learn... and live!
My life and work have certainly been better for it.
About the Author
Dave Crisp writes and speaks about HR strategy and high performance leadership based on 5 core principles he developed to succeed in seven diverse industries. Prior to 10 years of consulting as Crisp Leadership Strategies, he helped 3 successive CEOs at Hudson’s Bay lead 70,000 people to become a "best company to work for" despite 110 re-organizations, mergers and acquisitions – nearly one a month. Among other successes, he once negotiated $60-million on a $10-million contract, led HR for two major Toronto hospitals and started a $10-million Internet division in 6 countries in a few months while continuing to lead HR at HBC. He currently serves on the leadership team of an HR think tank and writes regular thought pieces for them, in addition to pieces for the Canadian HR Reporter as well as his own blog called Balance and Results.
Colvin, Geoff (2010) Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. New York, NY: Portfolio Trade.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company
Google (n.d.) Google’s Mission Retrieved from http://www.google.ca/about/company/
Welch, Jack (2005) Winning. Boston, Mass: Harper Business.